(July 22, 2021 / Jewish Journal) Does reality television have educational value? Yes, it can, depending on the show and the topic. As a law professor, I believe that all law is a reflection of the society that produces the law, and so knowing how culture is being shaped through reality television can provide important insight when teaching law.
It is precisely reality television’s role in shaping public opinion that worries me about “My Unorthodox Life,” the new reality show about the formerly frum Julia Haart, now the Elite World Group CEO. As a career woman, I have a great deal of respect for her rise in the business world after leaving her self-denominated ultra-Orthodox community. Her professional achievements are impressive for anyone regardless of background and education. What bothers me is that the show gives the impression that according to Orthodox Judaism, women have no value apart from their ability to procreate. This impression is not only inaccurate as a matter of halachah, Jewish law, but it also casts all of Orthodoxy, and even Jews in general, in a negative light that may contribute to the fervent anti-Semitism here and abroad.
Most people outside of Orthodox communities do not understand that Orthodoxy in general is far from monolithic, and that even if the behavior Haart critiques is characteristic of some communities, her story does not embody the totality of Orthodoxy generally and Orthodox women specifically. Watching this show, most people would have no clue that Orthodox women are often highly educated and professionally accomplished even in the world of Jewish law, long a male-dominated field. Professionally, these women are breaking ground in much the same way as Haart, and their stories deserve to be told just as widely.
Haart’s show tells only one of the many stories of Jewish women—the story of one who is repressed and silenced at every turn. Yes, female voice and agency are noticeably absent in both biblical and Talmudic texts. It is also the case that in most parts of the Orthodox world women cannot participate equally with men in religious services. And some Orthodox women are still “chained” to their husbands because according to Jewish law, only the man can grant a woman a divorce.
But it is also true that Jewish law has long recognized female personhood in some rather surprising areas. For example, Jewish law has always understood women as sexual beings. Men are commanded to satisfy their wives sexually (yes, commanded), and the required amount of sex varies depending on how much time the husband’s occupation allows for sex (no joke—this is in the Talmud). And Jewish law also forbids a man from raping his wife, a position that was progressive not only in Talmudic times but also by relatively recent standards.
Many people also do not realize that one of the most familiar symbols of Jewish culture today—the ketubah—was created by sages in the early centuries of the Common Era to protect the economic interests of women in case of divorce or their spouse’s death. As a result of these protections, women acquired a wide range of rights and protections that were, in Talmudic times, quite remarkable.
Haart’s show also doesn’t tell viewers that Orthodox woman are now learning and teaching Talmud, an area traditionally off-limits for women, more than ever before. Orthodox women are also achieving high levels of academic success in areas of study that were once exclusively male. I have the privilege of co-editing the forthcoming “Oxford Handbook of Jewish Law.” My co-editors (both male) and I have assembled an outstanding group of scholars participating in this prestigious volume—about one third are women and many are Orthodox. These women are writing on important topics of Jewish law ranging from the composition of the classical legal sources to organ donation.
For decades, Orthodox women have been successful in the secular legal world, but now programs exist to train women to become advocates before rabbinic courts in Israel as well as Jewish law consultants. In 2009, Yeshivat Maharat opened in New York with the mission of training Modern Orthodox women to be halachic and spiritual leaders, and other similar training programs exist in Israel. To be sure, there is still resistance to female clergy in many pockets of the Orthodox community. But the message that progress is being made is not getting out to a larger audience because this work is far more low profile than a reality television show on Netflix.
It is important to remember that many people who watch reality television may have no personal knowledge of or experience with Jews, and their vision of Jewish people is shaped entirely by popular media. The truth is usually far more nuanced than the extremes depicted in these venues. “My Unorthodox Life” may be just entertainment for many viewers, but its skewed representation undermines the achievements of many Orthodox women and creates negative perceptions that hurt not only the Orthodox but also all Jews.
Roberta Rosenthal Kwall is the Raymond P. Niro Professor at DePaul University College of Law. She is the author of “Remix Judaism: Transmitting Tradition in a Diverse World,” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020); “The Myth of the Cultural Jew” (Oxford UP, 2015) and “The Soul of Creativity” (Stanford UP, 2010).
This article was first published by the Jewish Journal.
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